BABEL-17 – Samuel R. Delany (1966)

Babel-17Babel-17 failed to connect with me. I felt this classic is way past it sell by date. Since it’s mainly a book about ideas, the ideas must remain fresh and crisp for a 21st century reader to enjoy it. Sadly, this isn’t the case.

The most focussed on ideas in the book are about the nature of language. Even when reading it in 1966, I doubt that someone with a fairly basic knowledge of language philosophy could have enjoyed this. It’s not so much the matter that the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been discredited to some degree, but it’s simply just the general sloppiness of the ideas and little tidbits about language Babel-17 tries to force feed you. I’ll briefly illustrate that with 2 examples…

Delany writes about a language that can describe a very big and complicated power plant fully, to pretty small details (colors of the wall, mechanics, lay-out, etc.) in just 9 (nine!) short words, even though the culture that speaks this language beforehand has never even encountered a power plant. As a character with a keen mind says in the novel: “That’s impossible.” The prodigy main character, a telepathic uberpolyglot poet, dismisses this with a very short explanation, and simply states it is just a matter of the right vocabulary. Yeah, right. No, it is downright impossible, and any serious language philosopher would have told you in the sixties too. There’s nothing speculative about claiming something else, it’s just bad reasoning. Delany further also devotes pages and pages about a language without the word “I”. Sure, thinking in (only) this language would probably influence one’s self-consciousness. Yet, Delany then goes on to claim such people wouldn’t have any will or incentive to escape a dangerous situation or be free, would know no fear, etc. Again, any behavioral scientist (or about anybody else with a right mind) in the 60ies would claim otherwise. I’m guessing ants or lizards have no word for “I”, yet still try to scuttle off when in danger. Yet a character thinking in this language does try to escape a prison and – I’ll just stop here.

All this might not have been a problem if it weren’t for the fact that just about the entire narrative of the book depends on the content of the above examples and others like it. The net result is a plot that is painful to read.

A lot of the other, science fictionesque ideas (those not about language) are ill-conceived too. Who would possibly want to have real, sharp metal spurs implanted on their wrists? Think about it for a second: do the benefits outweigh the practicalities of such a gimmick when sleeping or generally not being in battle? The book is full of stuff like that. Cringeworthy.

The characters are cardboard.

On top of all that, Delany tries to be literary. So, it’s not only a SF book about language (meta!), it’s an artistic book too. But again, it’s just feeble attempts. There’s a full chapter (that is just 1 page long!) with only broken syntax, there’s bad poetry at the start of every chapter, there’s a chapter with a minor lay-out experiment, etc. Other writers did stuff like that decades earlier, with more impact, and above all: out of internal necessity, because their novels or poetry needed it to advance the story.

This book probably has merit for those that read with a historical eye, but contemporary readers only looking for a good, entertaining read better stay away: even the action and the adventure story isn’t captivating.

And oh, there’s the giant infodump in the last 10 pages that explains just about everything that happened in the previous 180. So maybe just read that, and save yourself some time.

Concluding, as jwharris wrote on the forum of Worlds Without End: “these older books for the most part are poorly written compared to modern science fiction. (…) Often these old novels have some neat ideas, but the storytelling is crap.” In Babel-17, even the ideas aren’t that neat, often feel forced, not fully fleshed out or simply wrong.

Final verdict: embellishments + half-baked substance = shiny turd.

originally written on the 8th of May, 2015

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